As long as there has been art there have been those who are critical of it, or downright hostile towards it. And there have always been those who have been, shall we say concerned. Plato is one of the first who expressed this sentiment (at least in preserved writing), as he worried, for example in The Republic, about the effects art might have on people, that it might confused them and dull their senses. That has since become a long, apparently endless, tradition and it naturally embraced film as well when it appeared some 120 years ago. Today it can be experienced everywhere.
One kind concerns accuracy and was discussed recently by Nick Pinkerton in his excellent Film Comment column Bombast, where he wrote about "the “expert” op-ed, in which the facts as given (or elided) by the movie are scrupulously compared to the known historical facts, and as often as not found wanting." i.e. he was criticising those who cannot accept that films based on historic events are not 100% accurate with regard to the particular historic event. It is after all an impossible demand to make of a film that everything in it should be exactly as it was in real life. This can be a tricky subject, as sometimes filmmakers take too many liberties and it is a subject for a later blog post, but for now it will suffice to say that it should not be demanded of art that it only deals with the unambiguous facts. Art is different from facts, there are other criteria involved, and critics of all people should understand this. A film, even when based on a true story, is a work of fiction, and should be treated as such. But, as I said, there are complications. What is more straightforward are films not based on true stories. Yet they too are often criticised for not being real enough. A typical example is headlines like "What X gets wrong about Y", which are produced on a daily basis. They are hardly ever meaningful because the purpose of film X is not to get Y right, whether Y is sheep farming, space travels, university studies, open heart surgery or bowling. X wants to tell a story, and what matters is the interior logic of that story, or that world, not whether it gives an accurate description of our own, non-fictional world. They are not the same. For another example take Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli 1954), set in Scotland. It has often been criticised for not giving an accurate view of Scotland. But it is a fantasy musical; of course it does not give an accurate view of Scotland. Why should it? Also, what would an accurate view of Scotland be? Is there even such a thing?
If you go to a conference, or attend a dissertation discussion in a university seminar, you will soon notice that the most common question is "Why did you not talk/write about something else instead?" Of course the question is rarely put as bluntly as that, but the sentiment of it is that, and only that. (The answer is of course always "Because I wanted to talk/write about what I talked /wrote about." but, like the question, the answers are rarely as blunt.) It is also a question that is frequently raised towards filmmakers as well, not least if a film is set in the past. "Why did you make a film about the Second World War when there are wars happening today?" or "Why make a film about Martin Luther King when racism is still with us today?" (An article in The Guardian asked that very question.) Underneath the question is often an accusation that the filmmaker is a coward, trying to hide from the "real" problems by making a film set in the past. Sometimes the same question is raised when somebody makes a film set in a country other than the filmmaker's own country, again with the same undertone "By making a film about problems in country X, are you not implying that your own country is flawless?" But these are again unreasonable demands, similar to asking a history teacher "Why are you talking about the past? We have problems today you know." As a filmmaker you are under no obligations, you must be free to make films about whatever you want, and making a film about the past might in any event be a way of contextualising something that is still with us today, using the past to illuminate the present. Neither is it the case that the film in question is the only film being made. So another answer might be "Well, I chose to set my film in the past/in another country because many other films deal with that which interests you." Assorted conservatives and right-wing economists do occasionally ask about the education system why it is wasting time and money on teaching arts, philosophy or history, instead of something “useful and productive” but when it comes to art such questions are more commonly asked by those leaning left. Many on the left seem to feel that art, not least films, should have an obvious, concrete, social utility such as raising awareness of oppression or righting some wrong. "What is the point of art which does not criticise individualism?" an art critic wrote fairly recently, and well. quite a lot is the answer to that one. In the 1960s Ingmar Bergman was criticised by the young left on similar grounds, and for being a bourgeois filmmaker, allegedly uninterested and unconcerned by the problems at the time. (When he made Shame (1968), dealing with war and the disintegration of society, he was criticised for that too, for having the wrong view of these matters.) But, to quote from Lionel Trilling's defence of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the essay Reality in America, "If what Hawthorne did was certainly nothing to build a party on, we ought perhaps to forgive him when we remember that he was only one man and that the future of mankind did not depend upon him alone."